The Ideal Worker Is All Work, All The Time

Is 'Love Your Work' Just Propaganda?

You may be among the many who have found themselves working longer hours during the pandemic than before. In fact, those working from home in the US increased their workday by 40%, about 3 hours a day. This is a reflection of the culmination of the protestant ethic, the ‘ideal worker’ who makes their job the center of their life, and is available every waking minute.

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Here is a definition by Eric Reid and Lakshmi Ramajaran,

To be ideal workers, people must choose, again and again, to prioritize their jobs ahead of other parts of their lives: their role as parents (actual or anticipated), their personal needs, and even their health. This reality is difficult to talk about, let alone challenge, because despite the well-documented personal and physical costs of these choices, an overwhelming number of people believe that achieving success requires them and those around them to conform to this ideal.

Reid and Ramajaran’s attitude is to help people mitigate the bone-crushing pressure of working in ‘time-hungry’ organizations where managers ‘routinely overload their subordinates, contact them outside of business hours, and make last-minute requests for additional work’. They take it as a given that businesses will make these demands, and that workers will attempt to meet those demands. The authors identified three strategies that people adopt to deal with such demands, which could be considered profiles:

Note that the last strategy, where you reveal that you have a life and won’t drop everything to attend to a manager’s last-minute demands, translates directly into the possibility of damaging your career.


The most insidious aspect of the gaslighting inherent in the giant trick of the ideal worker is that we embrace one of its central tenets: we are supposed to love our work.


Of course, the ideal worker archetype is particularly problematic for working mothers, since women take on more caregiving for children and housework than their partners. And flexible work arrangements have been shown to be damaging to those who take them on, who are characterized as ‘opting out’, but are in fact ‘pushed out’.

Heather Williams suggests we could be at a turning point:

If there was ever a time to put to rest the old-fashioned notion of the ideal worker, it’s now. Post-pandemic, let’s resculpt workplace ideals so they reflect people’s lives today—not half a century ago. If you are focused on employee engagement, this is the path forward. (If you aren’t, you should be: a recent study found that disengaged employees cost employers 34% of their annual salary.)

She goes on to argue that ‘telecommuting’ (does anyone say that anymore?) could become institutionalized. However, there is a great deal of C-suite grumbling about getting the rank-and-file back into the office, despite what workers want. And old habits are going to prove to be hard to break.

Despite Williams’ optimism, we are supposed to accept our lot as ideal workers because we have accepted working as the core of our identity. But the most insidious aspect of the gaslighting inherent in the giant trick of the ideal worker is that we embrace one of its central tenets: we are supposed to love our work.

In Down With Love, Kathi Weeks lays out the hypnotism involved and takes it on:

We need to recalibrate ourselves individually to the fact that “life and work are intrinsically linked. They are not separate; they are one”. The spheres of life that were once imagined as separated into heartless world and loving haven are becoming increasingly confounded in this topsy-turvy period, with intriguing and sometimes disturbing results. Whereas in the late 1990s Arlie Hochschild observed a trend in the emotional reversal of our commitments to work and family, so that many were finding work more homelike and family more work-like, more recently, Melissa Gregg in her book Work’s Intimacy writes about the more intimate relationship that many workers have to work and the romance narratives used to characterize their love for and happiness with it.

[…]

Today management discourse seems to be obsessed with love and happiness. Popular management and career consultants tell us that love and happiness at work are good for both employers and employees, and the only thing the employee needs in order to accomplish this affective rewiring and emotional disciplining — and employees, they endlessly repeat, are the only ones who can do it — is “wide-eyed enthusiasm” (Kjerulf 2014, 172). Do what you love, they preach; learn how to love your work in ten easy steps. Fall back in love with your job. Learn even to love the work you hate. The future of work is happy. An often-cited quotation from one of the inspirational figures of this trend, Steve Jobs, distills many of the key themes of this literature:

Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle. (2005)

[…]

The old cliché “that women live for love and men for work” that Shulamith Firestone struggled against in her masterwork, The Dialectic of Sex (1970, 113), must now be adjusted to a rather unexpected update: we should all love our work. In this way, under heteropatriarchal capitalism, the ideology of romantic love born of the separate spheres, an idealized and feminized model of love, is being harnessed, not only to continue to assign domestic work to women, but to recruit all waged workers into a more intimate relationship with waged work.

Just as the Protestant work ethic can be construed as an ideology propagated by the bourgeoisie and inculcated into the working classes, the current discourse of love and happiness at work undoubtedly finds its greatest resonance within the professional and managerial classes. But just as the work ethic in the U.S. today circulates widely in the culture — as well as among employers, public officials, and policymakers — as an unquestioned value, the mandate to love our work and be happy with it is arguably becoming increasingly hegemonic as a cultural script and normative ideal. The improbability of its claims about how workers can find meaningful delight in their jobs, its seeming irrelevance to the real conditions of most employment, has not prevented the ideals of love and happiness in and through work from coming to set a broader cultural standard, one that affects a growing swathe of workers. To be competitive in this job market and to hold on to, let alone advance within, whatever job we might manage to land, we will need to adapt, in some way and to some degree, to the workplace-feeling rules and affective expectations that are increasingly being imposed up and down the labor hierarchy. Whether that means an employee will be required to employ the transformative effects of deep acting to satisfy an employer’s expectation of happy workers, or only to display the approved countenance by means of surface acting, depends on the employee’s location in the waged labor force.

Here we see Week’s surface acting and deep acting echoing Reid and Ramajaran’s strategies for coping with demands for use to act as ideal workers. But Weeks goes far, far beyond simple coping strategies, to an economic and ideological examination of the current zeitgeist of work and our connection to it. By coopting the fear of a loveless personal life, and rethreading it into the fabric of work, Weeks argues that this amounts to a form of propaganda, inducing us to work more [emphasis mine]:

At some level, the mandate to love your work and be happy with it has a very simple and straightforward rationale: the dictate to work more. Love and happiness, these management gurus explain, are endless reservoirs of energy, concentration, and motivation. How do we make ourselves happy and in love with our job? Here is a typical response: “add new responsibilities, get more involved, learn additional skills, add qualifications, and upgrade your game” (Hannon 2015, 22, 152-153). Happiness at work, “a mindset that allows you to maximize performance and achieve your potential,” is, as is often repeated, “strongly related to productivity” (Pryce-Jones 2010, 4, 10). In other words, employers can rest assured that “happiness is good for business” (Kjerulf 2014, 117). In this form, the advice conforms to the model of mere propaganda: consciously propagated ideas intended to induce an expedient response.

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And what if we were to break with this moral convention? What if we looked squarely at the false equivalence of work and love and denied it? According to Weeks, we’d be considered at the least outside the norm, and at the worse, shunned as an interloper [emphasis mine]:

The panic, shame, or sense of being marginalized or excluded that the prospect of failing to love and be happy at work may elicit today is at once a testimony to the cultural authority of romantic love and a consequence of the naturalization of this new ethos of work such that any failure to comply is attributed to an individual defect. The naysayer who refuses to cultivate the proper feelings about work is likely to be seen not as a killjoy, just joyless. How sad it would be not to enjoy these good feelings, so we are encouraged to think, how lonely not to share in this meaningful relationship. Moreover, in a society in which most people describe themselves as middle class, the failure to love and be happy in one’s work risks marking one as an interloper, someone not entitled to the broader cultural benefits of membership in this imagined class status. If love, regardless of its object, is a notoriously difficult target of critique, love at work proves particularly elusive, as it wraps an already cherished value in the mantle of another unquestioned structure of belief — namely, the work ethic’s celebration of work as an essential need, ethical duty, and end in itself. The discourse of love and happiness at work is thus doubly well insulated from critique.

The mystification of work today as something to love is out of kilter, simply because work cannot love you back. This does not discount the self-regard we gain from creativity, the motivation to be respected by those we respect, or pride in accomplishing difficult tasks. But as Lauren Berlant points out, the promise of happiness at work from loving the job — and thereby becoming an ideal worker — is a cruel optimism since ‘the object of the desire impedes the aim that brought you to it initially’.

Coming around to this perspective underlies the concepts of minimum viable work. We should not start with the goal of conforming to the unreasonable demands of time-hungry corporations, that will use even the leverage of a pandemic to carve out an additional three hours a day from its workers. We should steer clear of management gurus prosing on about how to fall in love with work, as an institutionalized coping mechanism for an economic model that simply does not care about us.

No, we should construct our lives around what matters to us in the world, those we love, and the ongoing search for meaning. So remain skeptical when others tell you the best path to that is loving work as it is structured today. I hold out hope for an alternate way of work, though, one that is not designed around performative propaganda, and not relying on ideal workers to live inhuman lives.